Article by Joseph P. Kauffman
In our modern, fast-paced society, stress is one of the greatest health issues that most of us face. According to studies done by the American Psychological Association, 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
Stress is commonly defined as, “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension,” and there are many causes of stress in modern life—stress about our financial situation, about our occupation, our education, politics, the state of our nation, violence, crime, and so on. Whatever the cause of our stress may be, it is important to understand the affect that stress has on our body and mind, and to learn how to better manage and reduce our levels of stress, so that we can experience happier, healthier lives.
The Effects of Stress on Health
Stress puts your body into a state of fight or flight. The body is prepared to protect itself, and whenever it is in this defensive state, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure.
Normal levels of cortisol also are released when you wake up in the morning or exercise. These levels can help regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar levels and even strengthen your heart muscle. In small doses, the hormone can heighten memory, increase your immune system and lower sensitivity to pain.
The danger of a fast-paced culture, however, is that many of us are constantly in high-stress mode. If your body experiences chronic stress, you may begin to feel unpleasant and even dangerous effects, such as:
- Intestinal problems, such as constipation, bloating or diarrhea
- Anxiety or depression
- Weight gain
- Increased blood pressure
- Low libido, erectile dysfunction or problems with regular ovulation or menstrual periods
- Poor sleep
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
If one continues to live in a state of stress over longer periods of time, it can lead to even more serious health issues, including:
- Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and stroke
- Obesity and other eating disorders
- Menstrual problems
- Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women
- Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon
Clearly stress is a major cause of health issues, and with nearly three quarters of the population experiencing stress in their daily life, there is great need for us to discover new ways of managing and reducing our stress.
Managing Stress with Breathwork
So, what can we do? How do we live in such a fast-paced culture and still maintain a sense of calm and ease? How do we keep up with the demands of our busy lives while also remaining relaxed and undisturbed?
There are many ways to manage our stress levels—spending time in nature, getting adequate sleep, exercise, meditation, proper diet, music—but perhaps the most effective practice for reducing stress and generating peace is the practice of breathwork.
Breathwork has become a popular topic in recent times, and for good reason. Among many other mental, emotional, and physical benefits, it is one of the greatest practices for helping the body switch from the sympathetic nervous system response of fight-or-flight, to the parasympathetic nervous system response of rest-and-digest.
Breathwork is a general term that covers a great diversity of practices and techniques that use the breath to accomplish various goals—typically with the ideas of health, wellness, and happiness in mind. One can find numerous breathwork practices on the internet, in books, or in most cities and urban areas, and some practices are dramatically different than others in their approach and technique.
Essentially, breathwork is working with our breath in a conscious way, bringing awareness to the inhalation and exhalation of our breath. This simple act is actually quite radical, as most of us pay very little attention to our breath in daily life.
One of the first things we begin to notice as we pay attention to our breath, is that whenever we are in a state of anxiety, stress, or unease, our breath is very shallow, fast, and fills only the upper chest area. This is how many people breathe, and breathing in this way not only limits the amount of oxygen you inhale—another factor contributing to poor health—but it signals your body to be in a state of stress and defense. So, stress can be the cause of our shallow breathing, or our shallow breathing can be the cause of our stress. Our bodies and minds are more connected than we realize, and as we begin to notice our breath, we also begin to see how influential it is to our mental health.
When one is calm and relaxed, naturally the breath is slower, deeper, and fills the lungs, causing the diaphragm to press down and expand the stomach. This is the optimal way for the body to breathe, and just as shallow breathing is either caused by stress, or is the cause of stress, our relaxed, deep breathing can either be caused by a relaxed mind, or can be the cause of a relaxed mind. If you can understand this, and apply this understanding to your daily life, it can completely transform the way you live.
Give it a try—take a moment to intentionally breath a slow, deep, and full breath, then exhale gently, and completely. Keeping your attention only on the breath, do this three times (or more), and see how it affects your state of mind.
Benefits of Breathwork
When we are aware of our breath, and intentionally breathe slow, deep breaths, it creates a calm state of mind, and we can do this under any circumstance. This means that no situation has to impact our minds in a negative way. Rather than blindly reacting to situations in a way that creates stress for ourselves, we can consciously respond to a situation with calm and ease.
It seems too simple to be true, but if one is aware of their breath, they can simply continue breathing calmly, and can generate a relaxed state of mind, even under chaotic circumstances. It is never really our circumstances that are the cause of our stress, it is our attitude toward our circumstances, or as the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.”
This is what breathwork helps us realize. We have the power to choose how we relate to life. We do not have to respond in the way that most people would, how we are expected to respond, or even how we may have responded yesterday. We have the ability to take a deep breath in, connect to a sense of inner calm, and then respond to life from that calm center.
Most of our stress comes from being overly anxious about the future—worrying about our bills, our job, our goals, our responsibilities, and so on. Being aware of our breath brings our attention out of the worries of tomorrow, and back to the joy of being alive today. It brings us back to the present moment, the only moment that we can experience life, and the only moment in which we can experience relaxation, happiness, and peace.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh